“Csikszentmihalyi arrives at an insight that many of us can intuitively grasp, despite our insistent (and culturally supported) denial of this truth. That is, it is not what happens to us that determines our happiness, but the manner in which we make sense of that reality. . . . The manner in which Csikszentmihalyi integrates research on consciousness, personal psychology and spirituality is illuminating.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
The bestselling classic that holds the key to unlocking meaning, creativity, peak performance, and true happiness.
Legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's famous investigations of "optimal experience" have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi ("the leading researcher into ‘flow states’" —Newsweek) demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness, unlock our potential, and greatly improve the quality of our lives.
About the Author
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2021) was a professor at Claremont Graduate University and former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. His books include Creativity, The Evolving Self and the national bestseller Flow.
Read an Excerpt
The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Twenty-Three Hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal--health, beauty, money, or power--is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy. Much has changed since Aristotle's time. Our understanding, of the worlds of stars and of atoms has expanded beyond belief. The gods of the Greeks were like helpless children compared to humankind today and the powers we now wield. And yet on this most important issue very little has changed in the intervening centuries. We do not understand what happiness is any better than Aristotle did, and as for learning how to attain that blessed condition, one could argue that we have made no progress at all.
Despite the fact that we are now healthier and grow to be older despite, the fact that even the least affluent among us are surrounded by material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago (there were few bathrooms in the palace of the Sun King, chairs were rare even in the richest medieval houses, and no Roman emperor could turn on a TV set when he was bored), and regardless of all the stupendous scientific knowledge we can summon at will, people often end upfeeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.
Is this because it is the destiny of mankind to remain unfulfilled, each person always wanting more than he or she can have? Or is the pervasive malaise that often sours even our most precious moments the result of our seeking happinessin the wrong places? The intent of this book is to use some of the tools of modern psychology to explore this very ancient question: When do people feel most happy? If we can begin to find an answer to it, perhaps we shall eventually be able to order life so that happiness will play a larger part in it.
Twenty-five years before I began to write these lines, I made a discovery that took all the intervening time for me to realize I had made. To call it a "discovery" is perhaps misleading, for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time. Yet the word is appropriate, because even though my finding itself was well known, it had not been described or theoretically explained by the relevant branch of scholarship, which in this case happens to be psychology. So I spent the next quarter-century investigating this elusive phenomenon.
What I "discovered" was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. "Ask yourself whether you are happy," said J. S. Mill, "and you cease to be so." It is by being fully involved with every detall of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man's Search for Meaning:"Don't aim at success--the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue ... as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself."
So how can we reach this elusive goal that cannot be attaitied bya direct route? My studies of the past quarter-century have convinced me that there is a way. It is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control, over the contents of our consciousness.
Our perceptions about our lives are the outcome of many forces that shape experience, each having an impact on whether we feel good or bad. Most of these:forces are outside our control. There is not much we can do about our looks, our temperament, or our constitution. We cannot decide--at least so far how tall we will grow, how smart we will get. We can choose neither parents nor time of birth, and it is not in your power to decide whether there will be a war or a depression. The instructions contained in our genes, the pull of gravity, the pollen in the air, the historical period into which we are born--these and innumerable other conditions determine what we see, how we feel, what we do. It is not surprising that we should believe that our fate isprimarily ordained by outside agencies.
Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffered by anonymous forces,we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.
This is what we mean by optimal experience.It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when theboat lunges through waves like a cblt--sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor's veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator.Flow
The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Copyright © by Mihaly Csikszent. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Happiness Revisited 1
The Roots of Discontent 8
The Shields of Culture 10
Reclaiming Experience 16
Paths of Liberation 20
The Anatomy of Consciousness 23
The Limits of Consciousness 28
Attention as Psychic Energy 30
Enter the Self 33
Disorder in Consciousness: Psychic Entropy 36
Order in Consciousness: Flow 39
Complexity and the Growth of the Self 41
Enjoyment and the Quality of Life 43
Pleasure and Enjoyment 45
The Elements of Enjoyment 48
The Autotelic Experience 67
The Conditions of Flow 71
Flow Activities 72
Flow and Culture 77
The Autotelic Personality 83
The People of Flow 90
The Body in Flow 94
Higher, Faster, Stronger 96
The Joys of Movement 99
Sex as Flow 100
The Ultimate Control: Yoga and the Martial Arts 103
Flow through theSenses: The Joys of Seeing 106
The Flow of Music 108
The Joys of Tasting 113
The Flow of Thought 117
The Mother of Science 120
The Rules of the Games of the Mind 124
The Play of Words 128
Befriending Clio 132
The Delights of Science 134
Loving Wisdom 138
Amateurs and Professionals 139
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning 141
Work As Flow 143
Autotelic Workers 144
Autotelic Jobs 152
The Paradox of Work 157
The Waste of Free Time 162
Enjoying Solitude and Other People 164
The Conflict between Being Alone and Being with Others 165
The Pain of Loneliness 168
Taming Solitude 173
Flow and the Family 175
Enjoying Friends 185
The Wider Community 190
Cheating Chaos 192
Tragedies Transformed 193
Coping with Stress 198
The Power of Dissipative Structures 201
The Autotelic Self: A Summary 208
The Making of Meaning 214
What Meaning Means 215
Cultivating Purpose 218
Forging Resolve 223
Recovering Harmony 227
The Unification of Meaning in Life Themes 230
What People are Saying About This
Documents a set of scientific discoveries about human nature that actually illuminates the life experiences of all persons.